Genres galore make up the craziness that is Krystin Ver Linden’s “Alice”, a film that teases big things but is ultimately undone by both its ambition and execution. It’s a movie centered around an idea that has all the potential to be a wild and stylish Tarantino-esque revenge thriller. Instead, “Alice” never gets its footing and is compromised by woefully underdeveloped characters, a scattershot script, and narrative shortcuts galore.
With a twist that would M. Night Shyamalan blush, the title character Alice (Keke Palmer) escapes from a late 19th century Georgia plantation only to discover the year is actually 1973. If the premise sounds familiar that’s because 2020’s “Antebellum”, a movie that wasn’t nearly as horrible as the pounding it took would indicate, was built around a similar twist. With “Alice” it’s mostly about the revenge…kinda.
Without question, Palmer is the film’s biggest strength and she does her best with the haphazard screenplay (written by Ver Linden). But neither the early scenes on the plantation or the 1973 scenes that follow allow her room to do anything interesting with her character. And as the movie spirals from perplexing to laughably bad, Palmer is left stranded with little to do but stick with it till the end.
Minus some missing details (possibly due to budget constraints), the early scenes are pretty convincing. In fact, another strength is in the production design and how well Ver Linden captures two vastly different periods. The plantation setting is believable in large part thanks to the location, costumes, and the immersive way Ver Linden shoots it. The issue (as it is throughout the film) is the storytelling.
While the antebellum plantation scenes look great and the performances are solid, they check more boxes than tell a good story. You have the slaves working the crops while the berating white foreman looks on. You have the by-the-book wicked plantation owner Paul Bennet (Jonny Lee Miller). You have the seemingly mandatory one scene of a slave being tortured. And you have the various attempts to escape. In between it all is Alice who we first meet as she secretly weds her love Joseph (Gaius Charles), a smart, strong and passionate fellow slave.
After learning he’s about to be shipped away to another plantation, Joseph attempts an escape, vowing to come back for Alice. But when he’s captured and beaten to a pulp, Alice can’t take it. She tries an escape of her own, running to the point of exhaustion. With little strength left, she wanders out of the woods onto a paved highway where she’s nearly hit my a big rig. Yep, it’s 1973. After fainting, the truck’s driver, Frank (Common, working at the exact same temperature and tenor as he does in every film) takes her to an area hospital, convinced she has amnesia. Oh how little he knows.
After some truly silly and narratively convenient guesswork, Frank decides to take her to his house (with little thought and practically no buildup) to help jog her memory. He starts by sharing life’s finer pleasures such as “Sanford and Son”, soul music, and bologna sandwiches. But who knew all it would take was an encyclopedia, a few newspaper clippings, and Pam Grier’s “Coffy” for Alice to get caught up on African-American history and current day fashion. Quite literally, within 24 hours Alice is fully adjusted to 1973 society and in full avenging angel mode.
“Alice” hits a point where its Blaxploitation motifs kick into gear and the movie teases something it never fully delivers. Yes, Alice puts together a plan to return to the plantation so she can free her people and dish out some good old-fashioned revenge on the Bennets. But the Pam Grier vibes are paper-thin, and other than her look, Alice never feels anything like her inspiration. Nor does this movie have any of the energy or style of those 70s era genre flicks.
“Alice” is a movie chock-full of squandered potential. Outside of Keke Palmer’s committed performance and some visual touches showing Ver Linden’s promise as a director, there’s little here to latch onto or get excited about. Its issues really come back to the writing which ranges from dreadfully shallow to glaringly on the nose. It keeps “Alice” stuck in a weird gear and never allows it to get as crazy as it could be or as insightful as it should be.